I have not read War Horse, but I took my eldest child to see the Steven Spielberg film version when it was released in early 2012. We both liked it (particularly John Williams’ outstanding score) but with reservations. It felt episodic and somehow not as powerful as it should have been.
Last September we saw War Horse again, this time the stage version. It was absolutely fantastic. Theatre seemed the ideal medium for the story, and the plot no longer felt episodic. It was a much more powerful, far more emotionally intense experience seeing the horrors of war depicted so vividly right before one’s eyes. The phenomenal puppetry and Brechtian staging somehow felt more real than the real horses used in the Spielberg film.
All of which got me thinking, what is the ideal medium for any given story? Clearly War Horse is a much better play than film, and I was reminded of a similar case in 1995 when Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was turned into a film with Daniel Day Lewis. The film wasn’t bad, but again, that story is much better suited to the stage, with all that witch hunt hysteria right in your face.
Conversely, the film versions of Jaws and The Godfather are much better than the books they are based on. Stargate worked much better as a TV series than as a film. I prefer the Game of Thrones TV series to the books, whereas the Harry Potter books generally are far better than the films. In spite of rumours it might be made into a film, 24 only works properly as a television concept. As for The Lord of the Rings, it is both a great book and a great series of films.
However, some books continue to defy adaptation in any other medium. The most obvious example I can think of is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield’s disturbing, darkly comical inner monologue simply could not be depicted in any other form save the written page. A film version would be “phoney”, to quote an oft used word in the novel.
Could I write a novel as medium specific as The Catcher in the Rye? I seriously doubt it, but never say never…